January is the time of year when millions of people worldwide raise a glass to Robert Burns. Dubbed variously as the Ploughman Poet, the Bard of Ayrshire – or simply The Bard – Burns is Scotland’s national poet and lyricist.
Throughout the month of his birth – January 25 1759 – Burns Suppers of all shapes, sizes and tartan hues are set to offer haggis, tatties and neeps (see below) and invite devotees to down a dram or two of whisky, listen to readings of his work, and toast the Immortal Memory of a great humanist.
In 1759, much of the greater world still appeared on maps as “terra incognita”; the interiors of Africa, Asia and South America remained unexplored. Australia had not been colonised; no vessel was known to have crossed the Antarctic Circle; Europe was at war, and the vast British Empire included 13 American colonies.
The wearing of “highland clothes” was still proscribed, following the slaughter at Culloden 14 years previously. Penalties were severe – six months for a first offence and transportation for seven years “to any of His Majesty’s Plantations beyond the Seas” for a second transgression. And today, we have “no uniform day”.
Yes, the Burns Supper season is upon us and until around the end of this month, Burns clubs and societies across the world will host their annual homage to The Bard. For some it’s an excuse to have a good drink, to listen to some bawdy poetry, and poke a serving of haggis – Scotland’s national dish – around a plate.
At this point we had intended to pass on a recipe for home-made haggis, but thought better after reading the first few steps: “Clean a sheep’s pluck thoroughly. Make incisions in the heart and liver to allow the blood to flow out and parboil them, letting the windpipe lie over the side of the pot to permit the phlegm and blood to disgorge from the lungs...”
A Burns Supper normally starts with the assembled company being invited to the table where the host offers an opening grace – traditionally The Selkirk Grace – then the soup course is served.
Then comes the Piping of the Haggis – the evening’s acme of pomp. The chef, carrying the haggis, follows the bagpiper in a more or less dignified procession around the room before presenting it to the chairman of proceedings.
A previously designated reader then recites the Address to a Haggis over the beast. A glass of whisky is offered to the piper, chef and reader, and with a few words spoken over it, the haggis is sliced open with the finely-honed edge of a skean dhu. The meal is then served with all its composite courses and copious helpings of “guid ale” and whisky.
The whisky we are enjoying at the moment is Castle & Crag Single Grain from Aldi. It’s well rounded and sweetish and being a Scotch from a German-based supermarket demonstrates Burns’ universal appeal.
Following a short interval, a musically-inclined guest or two might sing a Burns song and the chairman, or designated speaker, delivers the Immortal Memory address. This should be a somewhat serious and careful consideration of the life and works of Robert Burns. This speech always ends with standing guests, raised glasses, and a toast.
The comes a Toast To The Lassies and a Reply From The Lassies – and no Burns Supper is complete without a recital of Tam o’Shanter, one of his most famous pieces. Some closing remarks and thanks are offered before Auld Lang Syne is sung, yet more whisky is consumed, and a weary wend home is contemplated.
Burns’ favourite drinking haunt is often quoted as the Globe Inn in Dumfries, a pub still very much alive and kicking. It was first established in 1610, nestling down a narrow wynd in the Scottish Borders town. To this day, his favourite chair sits by the fireside and his name is etched into a bedroom window where, it is believed, an affair with barmaid Anna Park took place.
It is little wonder that many a myth has surrounded Burns and his womanising, drinking ways. At the end of John Ford’s 1962 film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a newspaper reporter says: “When the legend conflicts with the facts, print the legend”.
Here’s to the legend that is Robert Burns.
Haggis: A savoury pudding-like dish containing sheep’s offal minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices and salt, mixed with stock and traditionally encased in a sheep’s stomach (though now more often in an artificial casing)
Tatties: Potatoes – in this instance, mashed
Neeps: Turnip, usually swede in Scotland
Skean dhu: A ceremonial dirk or knife
A guid ale: A beer such as Wylam Brewery’s bittersweet and complex Jakehead IPA (6.3% abv) would make haggis sing – and vice versa.
For more information visit www.robertburns.org